Remarkable journey of Broncos' Aqib Talib: 'Wild-horse rider' to big brother

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Aqib Talib sends a group text every night to his fellow defensive backs on the Denver Broncos. The wording varies, but the central theme remains the same:

Set your alarms. Be on time tomorrow.

Talib is the punctuality police for the Denver secondary. He doesn’t dig tardiness, and he’ll make sure you hear about it if you fall asleep in a meeting or punch out early.

“He’s like the big brother,” safety Josh Bush said.

Talib used to be big trouble, going back to his wild days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he has matured into a team leader at the wise old age of 29. Still supremely talented, the Pro Bowl cornerback has become a cerebral player -- a film-watching, note-taking homebody who approaches the game with a serious mind.

He received a glowing endorsement from one of the all-time brainiacs, teammate Peyton Manning, who gushes about Talib’s football IQ and his ability to hold graduate-level conversations in the language of X's and O's. Manning called him “a great student of the game.”

Say what?

This is the same Talib who got into a fight with Bucs teammate Cory Boyd at the 2008 rookie symposium, where draft picks are taught life lessons and professionalism before their first training camp.

The same Talib who punched out a taxi driver in Tampa, resulting in an arrest on simple battery charges and a one-game suspension by the NFL.

The same Talib who was arrested on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly firing a gun at his sister’s boyfriend. He was indicted, but the charges were eventually dropped.

The same Talib who tested positive for Adderall and received a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

“He was a wild-horse rider who could play football at a very high level,” said a former member of the Bucs’ organization, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “At the time, I wondered if he’d ever see the light, if the switch would ever go on.

“I would’ve bet against it. There were enough issues on a personal level that made you think he’d end up in big trouble and his career would be short-circuited. I’m glad I was wrong. I’m happy for him. It looks like he’s turned his life around.”

The Bucs, who drafted Talib in the first round, gave up on him in 2012, trading him to the New England Patriots at midseason. He was a tremendously productive cornerback -- 17 interceptions in his first four years -- but there wasn't enough aspirin in the Tampa Bay area to deal with the headaches.

After nearly two seasons with the Patriots, Talib signed a six-year, $57 million contract with the Broncos. He has galvanized the secondary, helping them earn the league's No. 1 defensive ranking and a berth in Super Bowl 50.

“Now it’s to the point where I’m the old guy in the locker room,” he said, smiling. “It just kind of happened naturally.”

His newfound maturity, he meant.

Oh, sure, there have been lapses -- he was suspended one game this season for poking Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen in the eye -- but Talib is regarded among his teammates as a heady player. And intense. Energetic, too. In Denver’s playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Talib sprinted down the sideline, stride for stride, with Omar Bolden on a long punt return.

“Aqib is clearly an outstanding corner, but he just has an awesome, high-energy personality that I think is contagious to not just the other defensive players, but the offensive players as well,” Manning said.

Manning said he likes talking with Talib about pass coverages and route combinations, and the future Hall of Famer believes those conversations have helped him become a better quarterback. Imagine that.

Talib said he studies about 10 hours of film a week at home. In his wild-child days in Tampa, he didn’t do any work outside the facility. They didn’t have computer tablets in those days, and any extra film work had to be done at the team facility.

“You had to stay at work, and I definitely wasn’t staying at work,” he said. “So it was zero hours on my own.”

During the 2008 draft, Talib's college baggage sparked a debate in the Bucs' war room, according to the former member of the organization. There were rumors of three failed drug tests in college, which probably hurt his stock. With the 20th pick, the Bucs, coached by Jon Gruden, decided to pull the trigger based on a strong recommendation from Kansas coach Mark Mangino.

The Bucs did their homework, discovering Talib’s tough upbringing may have contributed to his problems. He grew up in the projects in Cleveland, surrounded by drugs, violence and poverty. His mother spent eight months in prison because she stabbed a neighbor with a steak knife, stemming from a dispute over $50. Talib, too, ran afoul of the law, receiving two years of probation for burglarizing a home in his neighborhood.

Talib lived with his father in Trenton, New Jersey, from the fourth grade to seventh grade, eventually reuniting with his mother in Texas. He acted out because ... why not? Many coaches and talent evaluators believe in the talent-trumps-character credo, allowing gifted athletes such as Talib to skate through the ranks. His talent was so prodigious that it got him to the NFL.

A lot changed when he was traded to New England, where he met coach Bill Belichick, an old-school sheriff who doesn’t stand for any nonsense. Talib felt reborn in the Patriots’ culture of ultra-accountability.

“One thing I have to say about that establishment over there: They’re very professional,” Talib said. “You go there for one season and you’re professionalism will go up a plus-2. If you’re at seven, you’ll be a nine.

“That definitely helped my professionalism as far as preparation for the game, how to handle the media, my behavior on the field -- everything. I really learned how to be a professional over there. I went there a seven and came out a nine. I’m working on being a 10.”

At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds with 32–inch arms, Talib was born to be a press corner. The arrival of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has allowed him to play more man-to-man than last year, the ideal marriage of skill set and scheme. He finished with three interceptions, including two for touchdowns.

Talib wants more.

“You can’t have a complete career, in my opinion, without that Super Bowl ring,” he said. “It would definitely be a major stamp on my career.”

Six more nights until Super Bowl 50.

Six more chances to be the texting big brother.